What does ‘B Corp’ mean, for Australian brands?

“Undertaking B Corp is akin to undertaking sustainability transformation and getting one’s sustainability practices in good order.”

With the news that Australian label Bassike had achieved B Corp status last month came renewed calls for local fashion brands to ensure they are reaching sustainability and ethical transparency goals.

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But what exactly is ‘B Corp’, and why is it important? Below, we take a look at the certification, how many labels have achieved B Corp status in Australia, and why it may not be the sustainability silver bullet consumers are hoping for .

What is ‘B Corp’ certification?

B Corp certification is an international certification that signals a company’s good standing in sustainability, ethics, and transparency for everything from the day-to-day operation, to raw materials and supply chain. Basically, it’s meant to act as a standardised verification of environmentally and ethically responsible business practices.

For a business to achieve B Corp status, they must undergo a rigorous application process, achieving a minimum assessment score, and then recertify every three years. According to the B Corp website, “In order to achieve certification, a company must:

  • Demonstrate high social and environmental performance by achieving a B Impact Assessment score of 80 or above and passing our risk review. Multinational corporations must also meet baseline requirement standards.
  • Make a legal commitment by changing their corporate governance structure to be accountable to all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and achieve benefit corporation status if available in their jurisdiction.
  • Exhibit transparency by allowing information about their performance measured against B Lab’s standards to be publicly available on their B Corp profile on B Lab’s website.”

Rosanna Iacano, Managing Partner and Advisor at The Growth Activists, the consultants who provided strategic guidance for Bassike as they navigated through the long, detailed process, explains that B Corp certification is an opportunity for local labels to “benchmark the business against a global best practice framework, and have B Lab certify them as an organisation dedicated to using business as a force for good”.

Which fashion brands are certified in Australia?

There are only a very small handful of apparel companies who have achieved B Corp status in Australia – in fact, despite the 23 results that show up in an Australian- and apparel-specific search on the B Corp website, it’s even less than at first glance, as many of these are specialty retailers or niche labels.

In terms of general apparel labels that consumers would be familiar with, the most prominent ones are probably Aboriginal social enterprise Clothing The Gaps; podiatrist-designed Melbourne footwear retailer, Bared Footwear; Afterpay Australian Fashion Week favourite, Bondi Born; Melbourne label Arnsdorf; ethical denim company, Outland Denim; and now Bassike.

Considering the shift toward sustainable fashion and ethical manufacturing in recent years, it’s probably surprising to note that Bassike is the first of Australia’s larger apparel labels to achieve the certification. However, Iacano believes it’s just the beginning.

“There are a number of reasons there are so few major labels certified,” says Iacano. “Part of the reason is because the ESG and the B Corp movement has started to gain a lot more momentum only in recent years, so we can expect to see many more fashion labels announcing their certification in the coming 12 to 18 months.

“However one of the other key reasons is also because it is such a rigorous assessment, and therefore is a significant commitment in time and resources to drive the sustainability transformation work and to document all the evidence in advance of verification.”

Mary-Lou Ryan, Bassike’s co-founder and Director of Sustainability and Supply Chain, agrees. “It is a large undertaking to work through the comprehensive reporting and data required for something like B Corp or Climate Active Carbon Neutral certification, so I can understand why we are the anomaly for now.”

Why should consumers care?

With the rise in popularity of sustainability and ethical manufacturing as factors in consumer purchasing behaviour, it’s unsurprising that we’ve also seen a rise in greenwashing. What does ‘sustainable fashion’ really mean? And how does a consumer identify which brands are ‘sustainable enough’?

“The B Corp certification, like other certifications like FairTrade or Woolmark, acts as a trust mark, not just for consumers but for a whole variety of stakeholders. It signals to consumers, wholesale partners, employees, community partners, suppliers, investors and a whole host of other stakeholders that the business is dedicated to driving a more inclusive and sustainable economy,” explains Iacano.

“Particularly for Gen Zs and millennials, who are increasingly purpose-driven, it creates the confidence to engage with a business because it has met the highest standards of verified performance, accountability and transparency. As a whole-of-business certification it proves that it’s not just about a product or two being ethical, but that practices throughout the business are excellent.”

The use of the words ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ may not be regulated in the fashion arena, but the B Corp certification certainly is, so it acts as an excellent marker for responsible business practice, along with other tools, like transparency reports.

Why is achieving B Corp certification so hard?

In addition to the sustainability and ethical manufacture goals, B Corp certification is an intensely rigorous process that requires specific areas of the business to meet governance standards that the usual business may not employ in their day-to-day operations.

So, to achieve the minimum points required to meet assessment, many businesses must completely overhaul their structure, as well as dedicate the time, money and resources required to prove all aspects of the 300 question analysis.

To find out more about the process of B Corp certification – straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will – we chatted to Bassike about its recent experience. According to Ryan, it’s not as easy as it looks, but the benefits outweigh the weighty time and resource costs.

“To achieve certification, you must complete the B Impact Assessment,” says Ryan.”[It’s] a demanding 300 question analysis that evaluates businesses and organisations based on five key areas: governance, workers, community, environment and customers, to ensure you meet the strident criteria set by the international B Lab network.

“The in-depth review process has opened my eyes to the sheer breadth of what organisations can do to support and champion benefit for all – it’s a new way of thinking and a new lens to apply to every decision you make as a business owner and brand founder.”

Deborah Sams, Bassike’s co-founder and creative director, agrees. “Achieving this certification has been a long and thorough process but it is this level of detail that makes [the] B Corp certification so respected and personally rewarding.”

Should all fashion brands be pursuing B Corp certification?

Despite the lengthy process, Iacano believes that, no matter what size the business, B Corp can act as an increasingly valuable tool in a business’ sustainability tool belt.

“The B Corp assessment framework is one of the best global standards for social and environmental good practice and can act as a powerful guide for businesses of any size, to discover what good practice looks like and to pursue the creation of policies and procedures that enables that best practice to come to life.”

She also believes it can act as an excellent how-to tool for smaller businesses who aren’t quite ready to apply for B Corp certification, but are struggling to understand how their sustainable business should look. “Essentially, undertaking B Corp is akin to sustainability transformation and getting one’s sustainability practices in good order,” she says.

“For small businesses, including start-ups, it’s also a way of thinking about creating sound foundations for future growth by creating the policies and procedures that they will need anyway at some stage in their journey.”

What’s the future of B Corp in Australia?

With businesses under more pressure than ever post-pandemic, is dedicating the huge amount of time and resources needed to apply for B Corp certification a realistic undertaking for local fashion labels?

In the end, it comes down to consumer demand. And, the way the market is going, it seems B Corp has become another important indicator that local consumers look for when it comes to shopping ethically.

“Consumer interest in shopping with a conscience and supporting ethical brands is here to stay,” says Sams. “B Corp is a universal certification that verifies Bassike holds values ​​of high social and environmental performance, corporate governance, and transparency – a belief in using business as a force for good.

“We have always viewed the challenges that come with making changes for the better as a long-term investment,” says Ryan. “And I hope that other Australian brands and businesses will see this as a sign of encouragement or inspiration to set out on their own B Corp journey.”

Bianca O’Neill is Fashion Journal’s Senior Industry Columnist. Follow her at @bianca.oneill.

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